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Boston (Massachusetts) based songwriter Susan Cattaneo has been earning a living as a songwriter for a long while. She spent some time in Nashville writing modern country and has latterly been a teacher of songwriting at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. In the last few years she has revived her recording and performing career and this new album marks something of a turning point in her life. For the first time, she says, she has written songs with herself in mind as the performer and, in doing so, she has embraced a darker, deeper running current than normally to be found in country chart music. This album has its own sound, not quite like anyone else I can think of, but it certainly owes as much to the noir sounds of alt-country as it does to her commercial country training.
Working with a fine selection of musicians under the guidance of producer Lorne Entress, she cultivates a sophisticated sound that seduces the ear with practised skill; each song draws you into its own particular atmosphere and, although she says she starts with the hook when she’s writing a song, nothing here has the easy flow that many Americana writers seem to achieve. Rather, it’s as if each track is a piece of music with story attached; we’re never knocked out by a big chorus or an easy tune but we are engaged by the collective musical intelligence at work. Every now and then I hear something akin to Mary Chapin Carpenter’s work – the self-confident understatement that makes clear the serious intent of the work.
The lyrics are really strong, full of insightful phrases that bring the ‘ouch’ factor to tales of love gone stale that are a bit of a recurring theme here. Her writing has a broad reach: Lorelei is a murder ballad of sorts, Revival is a wry take on the old phenomenon of the travelling preacher and John Brown revisits the tale of the abolitionist who was the subject of a Civil War marching song. All the way through, her singing impresses tremendously; she has a warm voice which seems to encompass darker lower register sounds as easily as higher, purer sounds. There is a strength and deliberation in her delivery that ensures she is always on top of the song, no matter how full the band sound swelling behind her. I have a nagging feeling that she could really have done with the one killer track that never quite gets delivered; Worth The Whiskey (a tale of one wounded woman’s defiance) could have been it but somehow it ends up a bit under-powered. Occasionally, too, there is a bit of a mis-match between the arrangement of a song and the real pain to be found in the lyrics but, overall, this is an impressive album and Susan Cattaneo, as writer and singer, is an impressive talent.
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